Once upon a time, I wasn’t a good little girl. Momma only had a few rules for my sister, Jane, and me. Rule number one: Always have each other’s backs. Rule number two: Do our damn chores. Rule number three: Don’t talk to strangers.
Jane and I were very close. She went to the middle school a mile away from my elementary school, so after my final bell, I walked to the public library across the street, combed through the stacks, selected books from the list she had given me ahead of time, and waited for her to appear with the strawberry milks she stole from the lunchroom. Jane and I would read on the steps; her, chapter books about unicorns or runaways; me, picture books about animals or science, and we sat until our momma pulled up in her mini-van to take us home.
But one day, Jane didn’t come to the library. One day, my momma didn’t pull up in her mini-van. One day, I broke rule number three.
Once upon a time, I had a birthday twice a month. Papa never asked what my actual birthday was. He never asked me what I wanted for my birthday either. I always wanted more clothes. I knew I wasn’t growing much. Momma said that growing girls had to eat their vegetables and Papa barely fed me food with color, but I could tell I was getting taller because my feet started to hang off the side of the loveseat I slept on. I had two dresses. The dress I was wearing when Papa first took me: green with a white collar, and the yellow daisy dress he gifted me when I turned nine years old for the thirtieth time. The green dress didn’t zip up anymore, and the daisy dress was tight in the armpits.
Papa liked birthdays. He liked the surprise and control of them. Sometimes I would startle awake to his face hovering over mine, his coffee breath warming my cheeks. “Happy Birthday, Rachel,” he would whisper and then press a kiss to my forehead. I learned not to lean away or be disgusted by his touch. Papa didn’t like to hit me because it would bruise his knuckles or disturb his gelled hair. So I let Papa kiss me on my birthdays and I would ask what month and day it was and sometimes he told me and sometimes he didn’t.
On birthday days, I showered. I lived in the basement of his house, and my bathroom didn’t have a door. Papa would turn away when I took off my dress, but once I stepped under the lukewarm water, he stood in the bathroom with his hands in his pockets and watched me through the plastic shower curtain as I bathed. It made him happy, to see me clean. But when I stepped out of the shower and onto the rubber mat, his eyes coated me in a new layer of grime.
Once I was dressed, he would pull me onto his lap and give me his gift. I collected stuffed animals, a new pillow, yarn, marbles, and other toys over the years of my birthdays. The stuffed bears looked like they had been loved before. They smelled like a different little girl. I asked Papa for books, but he never brought me what I asked for.
But one day, Papa gave me a different kind of present. Papa brought me a shiny gold key. He said, “Here, Rachel, this is for you. Go home.” One day, I took the key, I unlocked the basement door, and I walked home, maybe I crossed state lines; I walked home until my feet were bleeding on Momma’s front steps. But I was free, and I was home. The End.
Once upon a time Papa visited me in the basement three times a day at mealtimes. But some nights he came to me smelling sweet or sour, with tears dried on his face. He pulled a juice box out of his suit pocket and punctured the top for me with the straw. He would ask that I take the juice with two hands, and once, when I spilled a drop on the carpet, he whacked me so hard I passed out for a few moments. When I came to, he was furiously scrubbing the carpet, a towel tucked under his knees, and his suit jacket folded over the arm of the couch. Papa didn’t like messes.
On the nights I drank the juice, Papa sat with me and braided my hair, his fingers lingering at my collarbones. He would call me Chelsea. Good girl, Chelsea. I love you, Chelsea. But drinking juice at night made me wet the bed—the couch. When Papa discovered my mess, he would throw things. He tossed my room around. He pushed my face into the couch cushions.
“Chelsea never wet the bed.” He said, “You have to clean it, Rachel.” He left me with the spray bottle and towels and didn’t come back until the smell was gone.
Before Papa, I only ever peed the bed once. It was in Momma’s house. My sister Jane was tucked into the bed next to mine, and she was whispering the story she was reading by flashlight to me. We kept giggling, we knew we were supposed to be asleep, and when Momma threw open the door and said “Gotcha!” I was so surprised I peed myself. Momma wasn’t mad, though. She laughed and laughed and then stripped my sheets off the bed. I curled into bed with Jane, and Momma read us the book until we fell asleep.
But one day, Papa gave me another juice box. One day, the tears hadn’t yet dried on his face, and his sour breath tickled my neck when he finished the braid. “Have another juice, Chelsea.”
One day, I drank two more juice boxes, and peed myself with Papa sitting right next to me. When he got angry, when I wasn’t Chelsea anymore, but Rachel, I pushed Papa’s face into the urine soaked cushions and I held his face down until he died. The End.
Once upon a time, the only possession I had was my backpack. I liked my backpack a lot; it was bright pink with stars and rainbows on it. A sparkly dolphin keychain hung off the zipper and my momma had written “Rachel” in swirly script near the handle. As a third grader, I didn’t carry much, just my pencils, crayons, and my folder with my homework in it. My backpack was filled with the three books Jane asked me to pick up from the library for her. Three big chapter books. Momma said Jane was an accelerated reader for twelve years old. Momma was proud of Jane because she won a reading award in her classroom. I asked Jane to teach me to read good and fast like her, but she didn’t always have the time.
I read Jane’s books in the evenings. After Papa dropped off my dinner plate, which was always the same: oatmeal and a sausage, I would pull the books out of my backpack. I kept my backpack hidden under the loveseat. I didn’t want Papa to remember that I had it, in case he decided to take it away. I would listen for Papa’s familiar noises upstairs as he pulled his kitchen chair across the floor and sat down at his own dinner table. I always sat on the floor and ate off the coffee table, but I could tell that he had a real table upstairs. I knew that he ate real food too. Sometimes I could smell it, and I imagined I was eating it too.
When Papa’s chair screeched and the floor settled as he sat down, I lined the books out in front of me. The first book was about a princess who rides a unicorn into battle to save her people. The second was about a boy who runs away from home and joins the circus. The third book was about clans of cats who lived in the forest. I treasured these books. They were special to me, because they were Jane’s. It took two years, but I taught myself to read accelerated like her, starting with the newspapers Papa had in the basement. The pictures in them helped. But I took my time with the books. On the nights that I needed them, I read one chapter from each book. I was afraid of getting carried away with the stories if I read too much. You can never read something for the first time again.
Papa had a bookshelf in the basement. The basement was as big as the living room in Momma’s house. It had two doors to get in and out of it. Papa only ever came in and out of the door that led outside. Every time he walked in he carried the scent of gardenias or fresh cut grass and sunshine on his clothes. I tried running out the door once, to get outside and away from Papa. I figured I could run through his yard and into the street. I would scream like Momma told me to and someone would save me. But as soon as I started to run, Papa swung his big fist and hit me right in my stomach. I couldn’t move for days after that.
The other door in the basement, it led up to the rest of Papa’s house, where he ate those meals, slept in his bed, and watched his TV. That door was always locked. I tried to wiggle the lock open with a pencil, but the lead broke off in the keyhole.
Sometimes when I couldn’t sleep at night, when nightmares of Papa taking Jane instead burned on the edge of my mind, I got up and turned the lights on in the basement. I moved all the furniture against the doors, barricading myself inside. I created a wide-open space, a dance studio for myself, and I liked to imagine that the walls weren’t rust and the carpet wasn’t old and green. I thought purple carpet and pink walls would be pretty. But not bright pink, a pastel pink like the inside of a seashell, and not a pastel purple, a dark purple, like one of Papa’s ties. I danced and danced for Jane and Momma and even Daddy watching me from the doorway, sitting on top of the sofa, giving me applause. But no one ever came through that door.
My Daddy, he would like what Papa kept on the bookshelf. Papa had old newspapers and magazines stacked on the shelves. I read every newspaper on that shelf, talking loud like a newscaster to myself, and learned all about those current events from the year 1997. Papa had cut out a page from March, but I looked up the story’s page number on the front cover. The article was about a little girl who had died of cancer, according to the headline.
I would read the books aloud too, but I read them softly. I didn’t want Papa to know I had them still. When the nightmares came, and I missed Jane and Momma so much I thought the hole in my chest would swallow me, I allowed myself to read two or three chapters. I soothed myself with the words on the page, a different kind of lullaby.
But eventually I started to reach the endings in my books. I was on chapter forty-two in all three of them. The first book only had fifty chapters, the second one had fifty-two, and the third had sixty. I began to grow worried as I reached their ends. What would I do when they were done? I started only reading half of each of the chapters.
My Daddy would like the magazines. They were filled with bright pictures of cars and pretty ladies with red lipstick and poofy hair. They reminded me of the movies he used to watch on Sundays after church. I curled up on the couch with him and watched pretty women move on the screen in their flower-print dresses, and get into flashy cars with men who had white smiles and shiny shoes. The ladies always danced in these movies too, untied the scarves from around their necks and swished it around. They spun in circles and never got sick. Daddy sometimes made me cover my eyes when I watched the movies with him. I think because the ladies took their clothes off. They sometimes danced naked.
The magazines had naked ladies too. Daddy or Momma couldn’t cover my eyes in the basement. Daddy was dead and Momma didn’t know where I was. I think if she knew Papa had taken me, she would have come for me. Or maybe she was mad I broke her rule. I wonder if Jane broke the rule too.
In some pictures, the ladies had their legs spread open. Momma always told me to sit like a lady and that definitely wasn’t what she meant. I wonder if their Mommas ever told them that too. I went to the bathroom mirror, after I found those magazines. I stripped myself down, pooled the daisy dress on the floor. I wasn’t tall enough to see all of me, so I crawled up onto the counter. I held up the magazine next to myself. I was still a little girl. I didn’t have hair like these ladies. My breasts were budding though. I turned to the side. Yes, I had buds like the skinnier ladies in the magazines. I put my dress back on before Papa arrived with lunch.
But one day, I surprised Papa. One day, he showed up with breakfast and I was waiting for him, naked as can be. Papa was so shocked, he fainted. He fell backwards, hit his head, and passed out. I rolled Papa out the door, left him outside, and locked him out. I took his keys, grabbed my books, and went upstairs. I turned on his music and danced in celebration. It was my house now. The End.
Once upon a time, Papa woke me one night, the light of the moon shining down on the stairs enough to disturb my sleep. The door snicked shut behind him, the room enveloped in darkness once more. He crept into the room and sat on the couch, scooting his butt next to my head.
“Chelsea?” he whispered the name like he needed her.
“Will you give me a hug?” He was whispering his words against my forehead, his cracked lips scratching my skin.
“No, Papa.” If he wanted a hug, he could’ve just hugged me. I was scared; this was a different request. I felt him grip me under the arms and yank me up.
“Hug me, Chelsea.” I couldn’t see his face in the blackness of the room, but I felt the heat of his anger sizzling my skin.
“Chelsea is dead,” I said.
He inhaled his breath sharply and stood up from the couch, releasing me. I fell back onto the cushions and the lights flickered on. He was standing by the light switch, his hands in fists at his side. “Where did you learn that, Rachel?”
“I read about it, Papa.” I kept my words steady.
“Read about it.” He spat it out like bad words that Jane used to cover my ears from hearing. I figured out who Chelsea was from the newspapers. I used context clues like my teacher had taught me.
“The newspapers,” I said.
“You read the newspapers? What else have you been reading, Rachel? Do you know everything now?” His whole body was shaking, his lips curled, his mustache trembling.
Papa was scaring me. I didn’t want him to hit me. I had been a good girl for so long. “I read the magazines and the books.” I said, keeping my voice soft and my eyes down.
“What books?” Papa stormed over to me and gripped my wrists and shook me. “Show them to me. Now!”
I fell to the floor and pulled my backpack out from under the couch. I removed the books and laid them out for him. I hated that he was looking at them. I hated that they were being violated by his eyes.
Papa dropped to the floor and gathered up my books. I tried to grab them from him but he slapped my hands away. He walked toward the door.
“No, please! Give me my books, I’ll be Chelsea from now on,” I said, begging him from the floor, clutching my backpack. He snatched the backpack from my hands too.
“Chelsea didn’t know how to read books like these,” he said. “Chelsea was a little girl. You’re a little girl, Rachel.”
I knew I should be in middle school. I knew I wasn’t a little girl anymore. But I kept my mouth shut. Papa left the room, slamming the door.
I curled up on my loveseat and cried, all the while scheming ways to get my books back. I could put on my green dress from when he first took me. I could tie my hair in the pigtails. Be that little girl again. I would ask for juice and let him braid my hair all the time.
Papa opened the door again as if he heard my thoughts. He held out his hand to me. “Come with me, Rachel. There is something I want to show you.”
I stood up, shocked. He never let me outside. Papa strode over to me and steered me by the shoulders out the door and up the steps. I breathed in the fresh night air like I was coming up from drowning. My lungs felt cleaner. Goose pimples rose on my arms. I couldn’t see much in the dark, but I saw the shed and the flowers whose scent clung to his clothes. His house faced a forest line, and was fenced in. No neighbors to see me.
Papa brought me over to the side of the shed. He had piled up my books and backpack on the ground. They looked wet. I jumped for them, but he grabbed me by the hair and yanked me back.
“Rachel, you are my little girl. I am your Papa. You could have asked me for stories to read.” Papa pulled a small box out of his pocket and slid a stick out of it. He struck the match against the side of the box and a flame erupted at the end of it.
“No!” I shouted. “Please, no, no, no, don’t hurt my books, I’ll do anything,” I said, sobbing, ripping hair out of my head as I lunged for them. Papa threw the fire onto the books and they went up in flames, their pages curling and smoke rising into the stars. My momma’s writing on the pack was no longer visible, covered in soot. I watched the dolphin keychain on my backpack melt and twist into an ugly shape.
I became a ragdoll in Papa’s arms, falling to his feet.
“Burn me with them,” I begged. Papa let go of me and sneered.
“Remember who you are,” he said. I stared up at him, the orange light enhancing his sinister expression. His eyes were black; his gelled hair was in disarray. His hair had become gray, his face more lined, the wrinkles deepened. I knew I would have to be Chelsea.
But I didn’t want to. On that day, I got up and darted for the fence, I ran around the side of the house, screaming as loud as I could, shouting for help, my throat already raw. My muscles were out of use, but my legs carried me and I tried to swing one over the wooden fence door.
“Papa is a bad man! Papa is a bad man!”
Papa raked his nails into my back and ripped me off the fence, throwing me onto the ground. But the neighbors heard me. They knocked the fence down. They had torches, and they lit them on the books’ fire. They chased after Papa, flames in their wake. “No more bad men! No more bad men!” They shouted. Papa never came back. The neighbors bought me new books. The End.
Once upon a time, Papa taught me how to crochet. We only crocheted a few months in the year, making scarves that wound around my feet as I clicked the needle and hook back and forth. I never got to keep the scarves; Papa took them upstairs with him. Probably gave them to the people he saw when he wasn’t with me. I knew he saw people other than me; it was more obvious when we sat next to each other on the loveseat, Christmas music playing on a radio he brought with him, my fingers going numb. I could smell that Papa hugged a lady who wore rose perfume like my first grade teacher did, and that he went somewhere where they cooked food with spices. I knew he didn’t cook the spices at home. I would have smelled it.
When we didn’t crochet, Papa and I did puzzles. I told him I wanted puzzles with unicorns or lizards and he would bring them for me. I liked him best when we did puzzles; he never said much, but his presence was gentle as he picked out the corner pieces. Sometimes he brought me coloring books too and I doodled while he dozed with his mouth open. It’s too bad he was a light sleeper.
I didn’t mind spending time alone, though. After my books were burned, I had a hard time sleeping. For a whole year, my nights were twisted with flame-tipped nightmares that woke me in the night and had me vomiting my dinners into the toilet. I couldn’t stand that I didn’t know the endings to my stories. I didn’t finish any of them, and now I would never know what happened. I tried to think and mentally map out all the what-ifs in the books. I tried to piece together their endings, come up with what I thought was most likely to happen in the worlds enclosed in those now-burned pages.
Papa never gave me a pen or a pencil, and my backpack was gone. I wanted to write down their stories. Figure out the endings. I started using the newspapers and magazines–Papa never burned them–and I created my own piles of the alphabet, ripping out the letters so I could spell my own words. I started with the unicorn book. I thought I knew what was going to happen in there the most. I wished I had glue so I could have pasted my words down and my letters didn’t slide away. I hid my work under the couch cushions. I sat on them whenever Papa visited.
It started to drive me mad, thinking about all the possible endings. So many things could have happened. Characters could have died, years could have passed, and the stories could have left me hanging even more than I already was. Eventually I just wrote the endings that I wanted. I was able to stick the letters onto the picture pages in the magazines by using a little bit of toothpaste and spit. Then I put my endings up on the shelves, hiding them in plain sight. Sometimes I returned to them, deciding that maybe the unicorn should die. Or maybe everyone should die. I killed all of my characters. How’s that for an ending? But then I felt bad, so I went back to them. Repasted them, made everything a happy ending. I decided that there was nothing wrong with a happy ending. I think we should all want happy endings, even if they aren’t as interesting.
But one day, Papa interrupted me and my endings. One day, he showed up with his basket of yarn, the crochet needles resting on top. Pretending like it was an art project, I didn’t try to hide my endings. I ran up to Papa, I gave him a hug. I was as Chelsea as I could be.
Papa sat down on the loveseat. He was suspicious. I asked him if I could crochet a scarf for the teddy bear he had given me for my birthday last week.
“Wonderful idea, Chelsea. How wonderful.” Papa was proud of this idea. He was brimming with joy. We crocheted together, the teddy bear sitting between us. I tried not to look at my endings on the floor by the bookshelf in the corner.
“I love you, Papa. I love you sooo much!” I said.
“And I love you, Chelsea.” Papa was getting choked up. I leaned into him.
“This is my favorite bear, Papa,” I said. I knew it was Chelsea’s favorite. I could tell. It was missing an eye and the fur was matted from being held onto. Papa felt bad for beating me after the books. That’s why I got this bear. I picked it up and hugged Papa again, crushing the bear between us.
Papa started to cry. He was so happy. I was making him happy. I felt his heart flip in his chest. I willed it to keep flipping. Papa clutched his chest in pain. But he was still smiling, still happy. “Chelsea loves you, Papa,” I said. Papa then had a heart attack and died. But he was happy. The End.
Once upon a time, I broke rule number three. But Jane was late, so she broke rule number one. Papa had a beautiful blue car, just like the one Daddy used to drive. It pulled up in front of the library, and I walked over to the car to get a better look at it. The blue was a light blue, like the crayon I always used to color the sky, my first Schwinn bike, and the nail polish my momma liked to put on her toes. I wanted to run my fingers along the paint of the car, it was so pretty. But it wasn’t my daddy inside the car.
Papa rolled down his window to say hello to me. “You like my car, do ya?” he said. He was tan and had a bushy blonde mustache. He wore a wool green suit and a briefcase sat in the passenger seat next to him.
I nodded my head but backed away a bit. Rule number three: Do not talk to strangers.
“You’re waiting for your sister, right?” Maybe he wasn’t a stranger.
I nodded my head and tried to peer inside the car to see if I recognized this man. Nothing seemed familiar.
“Your mom told me to pick you up today. Your sister is running late.” His mustache lifted into an easy smile.
“You know Momma? What’s your name?” I said. I wondered what was keeping Jane.
“My name is Mr. Marsh. C’mon, Rachel, get in! I’ll drive you home,” he said, and then laughed. I hesitated, but he knew my name. I opened the door and got inside.
Later, he dropped me on a couch in a room with no windows and little furniture. He tossed my backpack onto the seat next to me. I opened my mouth and tried to see if I could get some words out.
“Mr. Marsh, where is my momma?”
He smiled at me then, and brushed his hands over his suit, smoothing out any wrinkles I may have caused. “Don’t worry about your momma no more,” he said. He sat down on the couch next to me and brushed my hair back.
“Call me Papa,” he said.
But maybe I screamed “No!” and kicked him where it hurts and ran out the door, and stole his car, and drove back to the library. There Jane was, she was just late, she had a teacher conference, I had forgotten, and Jane hopped in the beautiful blue car and I drove us home. And maybe Daddy wasn’t dead, he was in the driveway, sitting in his own beautiful car, waiting for us, and we had a group hug and watched a movie, loving each other until Momma came home and made us a dinner out of all of the colors of the rainbow. The End.
Once upon a time, I got my period. I woke up and it felt sticky in my underpants. I had bled through my clothes, staining the loveseat rust. I hurried and went to the bathroom; I took off my panties, and ran them under the water trying to get the stains out.
It was breakfast time. Papa came through the door, the morning light shining into the basement, shining on my shame. I heard Papa set my plate on the coffee table.
“Rachel? Are you in bathroom?” I turned off the tap. I didn’t dare say a word. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew my blood couldn’t be a good thing. It was more than just mess.
Papa saw the blood on the loveseat. “Rachel, did you hurt yourself?” His words were quiet and sharp.
I didn’t reply. The silence in the basement was so heavy I thought I might suffocate. Papa walked into the bathroom. He saw the underwear soaking in the sink, my hands submerged in the pink water.
“What have you done?” Papa said, his nostrils flaring. I started to cry. I couldn’t help it. I sobbed. I slid my back down the bathroom cabinets and held myself. I curled into a ball. I prepared myself for him to strike me. But Papa wasn’t looking at me. He was looking at the bloody underwear in the sink.
“You’re not a little girl anymore,” he finally said. He took a step back, stumbling into the living area. He put one hand out for a wall, the other hand grabbing his chest. Papa looked at me then, his eyes clear with shock. He blinked twice. Slowly. I stood up, moved toward him. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I had never seen him like that.
“No.” Papa’s word stopped me. He shook his head, straightened his suit, and walked out the door.
Papa didn’t feed me after that breakfast. Even when Papa took a sick day, he still brought me food. I strained my ears all day, trying to listen for footsteps in the house or his voice rumbling near the stairs. But I didn’t hear anything. I wondered if I was being punished. Was it because of the period? Had he found my stories? Was he snooping while I slept? I curled up on the couch and waited for him to come and deliver a physical punishment too.
But he didn’t come. I started shouting for him. I smacked the walls, begging, “Papa, please. I’m hungry!” Nothing. On the third day without food, I put my mouth by the keyhole of the door in the basement that led inside his house. Maybe he would hear me better. I put my hands around the doorknob and leaned on it, screaming his name, my voice cracking from the effort. The door swung open. It was unlocked.
I stepped back in shock, staring into the dark staircase. How long had the door been unlocked?
I went to the bookshelf. I took my endings out of their hiding places and tucked them under my arm.
“Papa?” I called out, as I climbed the staircase up into his house. I pushed open another door and then I was standing in his living room. A real living room, with tiled floors, reclining chairs, a big screen TV, and potted plants.
“Papa?” I called out his name again, and wandered into the adjoining kitchen. I opened the fridge. It was filled with Tupperware labeled with the days of the week. I opened Tuesday’s. Oatmeal and sausage. I shoved the sausage into my mouth, my stomach groaning with relief.
The kitchen was clean, the countertops spotless. A yellow phone was plugged into the wall by the coffee maker. A small notepad sat next to the phone. “Call this number,” it said, in the same bold, precise print as the labels in the fridge. The phone number was listed at the bottom.
I clutched my endings to my chest. I lifted a hand and picked up the phone. It made a buzzing sound. I typed in the phone number, my hands shaking.
It rang. And rang. Then, “Hello?” said Momma.
I would say, “The End” but that would be too predictable.
Shanna Merceron is a fiction writer whose work can be found in Philadelphia Stories, Mikroksmos Journal, Oxford Magazine, Coffin Bell Journal, and The William and Mary Review, with work forthcoming in Cleaver. Born in New Jersey and raised in Florida, no one believes her when she says she’s from “Flah-rida.” She is currently at work on a novel that examines the layers of darkness in and outside of oneself.
read next: Tiziano Scarpa, translated from Italian by Stiliana Milkova, “The Philosophy Student“
“Once Upon an Ending” appeared in TLR: Contents May Shift (Summer, 2020)